One boat many lives: International and local maritime heritage connections in Shetland


This story starts far beyond the Northern Isles with the building of RMS Oceanic. The greatest liner of her time, and the largest ship in the world until 1901, she was built for the White Star line in Harland and Wolff, Belfast.  Once completed the Oceanic was launched in 1899. 

Lifeboat from HMS Oceanic. Date: 19th – 21st centuries
On display at Hay’s Dock for Shetland Boat Week, August 2017.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2017.155
Photograph taken by Catherine McCullagh 

She was seconded to the Royal Navy and converted to an armed merchant cruiser at the beginning of World War One and met her end when patrolling the seas between the north of Scotland and Faroe. On the 8 September 1914 she ran ashore, as a result of a navigation error, on the Shaalds of Foula, Shetland.  There is now no-one living who can actually remembers the grounding of the then HMS Oceanic but some in Shetland remember the stories surrounding this event, and there are many remnants yet of this great ship dispersed around Shetland.

Lifeboat from HMS Oceanic. Date 19th – 21st centuries
Stern and rudder.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2017.155
Photograph taken by Catherine McCullagh 

How does the grounding of a White Star Liner lead us on to a maritime heritage of Shetland?  Let me introduce the Norna, or, as she is now, the beautifully restored No. 6 lifeboat a remarkable remnant from HMS Oceanic.  The Norna is remembered with great affection by many Shetlanders.  She has had many lives and escapes in her lifetime. 

The first ‘great escape’

Norna’s first escape being that she survived the grounding of HMS Oceanic.  Two Shetland men, merchant mariners, were onboard that day, Willie Mann of Yell and Magnie Edwardson of Unst, Shetland’s North Isles. They were also on the last lifeboat to leave the ship following her grounding: Lifeboat No 6.  Having fulfilled her primary role, the lifeboat was eventually towed away from the isle of Foula to Lerwick, on Shetland’s Mainland, where she languished for the remainder of the Great War.

A new lease of life

In 1920 the lifeboat was bought to be used as a relief ferry on the route between Lerwick and the nearby island of Bressay.  It was then that she was named the Norna.  Norna had various owners and continued service in Bressay until 1970.   She was used to move people, livestock and many items of cargo during this time. Passengers were often delivered wet as she was an open boat with no shelter.

Norna, Bressay. Date: early to mid 20th century
The ferry Norna coming in to Bressay with passengers from Lerwick.
Shetland Museum and Archives PR00438

Norna was sometimes chartered for fishing trips by Shetlanders and visitors alike. During one charter she managed to soak a few visiting fishermen from England.  It was really their fault for refusing to obey crew orders.  There was no toilet onboard so women fishers were usually put off the day long adventure.  

Norna, Bressay Sound. Date: early to mid 20th century
The ferry Norna out on a fishing trip accompanied by dolphins and/or porpoises.
Photograph from the Anderson family collections

Some Shetland folk, still living, will remember that she ran ashore on 5 January 1922 whilst fetching guizers – people participating in the Shetland tradition of dressing-up in disguise, and attending festivals and parties – from Lerwick for the Old Christmas Dance in the Bressay Hall.  Her bottom was fairly extensively damaged but she was refloated and repaired by Hay & Co Lerwick. 

A third useful life

By 1970 the Norna was only being used for moving livestock on journeys between between Bressay and Lerwick.  Not long after this she was sold to new owners, the Andersons, in Yell.  The Anderson family have many memories of moving sheep within her bows, between Ulsta, on Yell and many of the islands in Yell Sound.  The most dramatic ‘trip’ occurred when she broke her moorings and was heading for the bulwark! Someone came into the shop, in Ulsta, and said that the Norna was drifting towards shore. A group of local people lowered Will John Anderson on a rope over the bulwark and, when she got close enough, he scrambled onboard the Norna to attempt to start her engine.  Luckily his efforts worked, and he managed get back to the pier.  It was a memorable day for him, for more than one reason. The watery scramble was quite a way to start what was also, in fact, his wedding day!

Norna, Ulsta, Yell. Date: late 20th century
Norna newly arrived in Yell, still in the Bressay livery.  Above the pier is the Ulsta shop, the point where she nearly ran ashore on W. J. Anderson’s wedding day.
Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of W. J. Anderson

The Norna was used regularly on Yell sound between 1975 and 1993.

Norna, Ulsta, Yell. Date: late 20th century
Norna moored in Ulsta in Yell livery.
Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of R. Robertson

In 1993 Norna was taken out of the water and hauled ashore in Ulsta.  Here, she was battered by many gales and high tides which all led to notable planking damage. Lying here it seemed that this was how her days would end.  Many travellers through Yell will remember seeing her lying dejected on the beach.

Norna, Ulsta, Yell. Date: 2001
Norna in Ulsta ready for delivery to Shetland Museum.
Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of D. Walsh

An old life repurposed

In 2001 Norna was donated to the Shetland Museum who undertook and completed a wonderful job restoring her to her original White Star Line lifeboat specifications.  In Shetland, there has been much debate as to whether this was the correct restoration.  Memories of the Norna are different for many people, whether she is recalled as a ferry or as a sheep flit boat. There are cases that can be argued for all who feel that their ‘Norna memory’ should be honoured.  Through time these personal memories will fade. It seems apt that the Norna is restored to her beginnings.

Lifeboat from HMS Oceanic. Date: 19th – 21st centuries
In Shetland Museum’s boat store.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2017.155

Maritime heritage, an international heritage

This story is typical of Shetland heritage but it is also an international one.  Who would have thought that one boat could begin life in Belfast, cross the Atlantic Ocean, move between the Shetland Islands of Foula, Bressay and Yell, before ending up in Lerwick; on Shetland’s Mainland?

Queeboat, Cunningsburgh, Shetland. Date: 19th – 21st centuries
This photograph shows re-sited boathouse known locally in Cunningsburgh as the ‘Quee’, after the name of the croft where she was originally erected and used as a shed.  Local lore describes her as another lifeboat from the liner Oceanic. Now restored, the Queeboat belongs to Cunningsburgh History Group.
 Cunningsburgh History Group 

Boats have always been a lifeline for our islands and will continue to be whether they be flit boats, fishing boats, ro-ro (roll-on-roll-off) ferries or simply boats used for pleasure. Boats are used for one purpose; then reused, repurposed, and altered to suit another. Time and time again they are bought and sold all through the islands.  Some even continue their usefulness beyond their seaworthiness by being recycled into a boathouse roof or through their parts being recycled into new items; a bangle for example.

Bangle, Shetland. Date: Late 20th century
Now a simple copper bangle with a series of White Star Line symbols stamped on the outside surface, the real story starts when you look on the inside. There you will find an etched inscription: “’OCEANIC SANK FOULA SHETLAND 1914’”. This bangle began life as a copper fitting, part of the great liner Oceanic, launched in Southampton in January 1899, and finally salvaged between 1973 and 1978, before being refashioned into the item you see today.
Shetland Museum and Archives2004.183

A source of many stories

As for the Norna she now evokes all these past memories. Stories will be retold over her gunwales and many more will be created as young Shetlanders and visitors to our islands, hear about her and admire her graceful lines.

Lifeboat from HMS Oceanic. date: 19th – 21st centuries
The “New Connections” co-curators discussing the future of Shetland’s maritime heritage, over the gunwhales.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2017.155 

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

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